As chapter 1 drew to a conclusion Jesus told John to write what he saw, what is and what was to come. That outline of the book of Revelation includes chapters 2 and 3 as its second section. These two chapters relate current situations in the church of Jesus Christ. They pertain to what Jesus described with the words: what is and comprise 7 letters to the pastors of the churches in Asia Minor. The first letter addressed the Ephesian church, a place where Paul invested several years of his life and where Timothy became a first century leader. It seems a case can be made that this letter was directed at Timothy, but that is beyond the scope of what we seek to accomplish here.
Attributes as introductions
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. (Revelation 2:1–ESV)
Jesus dictates words to John that are directed to the pastor1 at Ephesus. Don’t miss the way Jesus starts: “The words of him.” The words of this letter are not from John, but are from Jesus himself.
Jesus goes on to reference one of his attributes to substantiate himself as author. This would boost his credentials, help to ensure that the church would see the messages as more than a construction of John. Here Jesus speaks as one who upholds the church, one who is intimately acquainted with the affairs of Ephesus.
What we are seeing here should be noted as a standard way of introducing himself. The attributes of Jesus that John saw and recorded in chapter 1 will be headliners in each of the coming letters.
The right hand and lampstands
Jesus holds, among other things, the pastors of these churches in his right hand. The implication of the dominant hand of Jesus is that he uses the pastors as his tools. The pastor is hard at work, but must be hard at God’s work. In God’s work God supports him. They gain their power from God and are enabled to do God’s intentions.
The other image that Jesus draws upon to introduce this letter is that of himself walking among the lampstands. He is not depending upon reports from angels or his chief of staff. He knows what he knows because he is involved and among his churches. Through his omniscience and omnipresence, qualities of himself as God, he is intimately aware of what is going on. We will see this thoroughly elucidated in verses 2-6.
So in verse 1 we see that the Ephesian church, one of first rank in this list of letters, is in the hand of God as God’s tool. Since humanity has been given free will and can reject the desire of God we also see Jesus among the churches inspecting their obedience, the fruit of their lives.
God at work and among his people
In our era things are not different. Jesus directs men and women giving them opportunities to follow him. He still inhabits his church empowering it and inspecting it. A time for accounting will dawn. This is no fairy tale, but we, like the Ephesians, will need to consider our own lives. Are we obeying? Submitted?
God’s thorough acquaintance with his church
2 “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. (Revelation 2:1–ESV)
Jesus starts from the positive. Encouragements are his first foray into the life of the Ephesian pastor.
Acts of benevolence (good)
First, he knew their works. Jesus had seen them helping the poor and needy. The Ephesians worked to benefit others in the name of Christ. They did things on earth after the fashion of heaven. The Ephesians were doing these things and God noticed.
Second, he knew of the toil and labor that came from these works. Exertion and effort can be wearying to the worker. The worker sees things that others do not: outcomes of bad decisions, pain inflicted upon the innocent, difficult circumstances of life and living, and the sheer volume of human suffering. A benevolent heart is not immune from these observations but wearied by them.
Third, Jesus knew how they endured in the face of all this. They did not grow weary to the point of abandoning the good deeds. The bitterness did not cause them to wash their hands of those things. Rather they persevered, they stuck with it pushing on and on.
Christians are not exempted from personal trials or heaviness borne from seeing the trials of others. No prosperity gospel here.
Regarding the Ephesians we know very little of their specific deeds and few of their names. We do not know the merchants, the slaves, the philosophers, the high-born and low-born who comprised the church of Ephesus. Frankly, we have difficulty knowing even basic things of the lives of those who are around us, but God does not have that problem. God sees and knows all things thoroughly.
Recapping this part of the verse Jesus said to the Ephesians that he not only knew their deeds, but also knew the state of their minds and hearts, their emotions.
God knows you and I
The mundane and seemingly menial tasks that comprise your day to day life are not hidden from God. He knows our names and motivations. He sees what we have done to honor him. God noticed the Ephesians and he has noticed you, noticed me. He does not merely look at the external successes, but the internal ones as well. All are important. We can bank on that and derive hope for the future from it.
Acts against malevolence (evil)
Life on earth can be a feisty and heavy place no matter whether you are looking among the nobles, the wealthy, the influential or among the working class, the poor, the influenced. From the top of society to its bottom humanity struggles to survive often living to serve oneself in manipulative and evil ways. It is not always that way, but with careful observation such people are always to be found.
Ephesus was no exception to this rule. There are people whose function is decidedly wicked. In the first two books of The Mark of the Lion trilogy by Francine Rivers there is a woman named Calabah. She is evil. She carefully sets out to corrupt the initially innocent Julia Valerian. In the movie Slumdog Millionaire there is a gangster named Maman who lures children from the trash heaps and trains them to be beggars. Sometimes he even blinded certain children to make them more effective and more dependent upon him. Our world is and has been rife with these kinds of terrible things. The men and women of God should and often do fight against such evil. Jesus commended the Ephesian church for it.
Unfortunately, the church itself is not immune from false teachers. That theme is often raised in the letters of Paul and others that comprise a large swath of the Biblical New Testament. In Ephesus there were those who labeled themselves Apostles. In the prime of the Ephesian church inquiries were made to learn the truth about those who made such claims. It would seem all too obvious that many made false claims since this was one of the things that Jesus gave as evidence of their excellence.
Jesus reiterates that he is well aware of their endurance, their efforts to honor the name of Christ and that they have not grown weary in well doing. Jesus is well acquainted with the Ephesian church. While he is not personally visible among them he is present by his Holy Spirit and not naive to their deeds, their heart struggles, their purity of doctrine, perseverance and fervor. These things, while all good, seem to be building toward another thing. It is as though one is waiting for the other shoe to drop, and in the next section it does.
4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. (Revelation 2:4–ESV)
Jesus took a turn toward things needful. In his helpful commentary Albert Barnes indicated that the Ephesian church had become less ardent in their love for the Savior. While they maintained their doctrine and opposed error they were declining. The energy or glow that the Ephesians had first known had begun to diminish. The energetic expressions, the passion known at the beginning had dimmed.
I found the best analogy that rose in my mind as I read both Revelation 2:4 and Barnes notes on it was the love between a man and a woman at the beginning of a relationship. While many want that phase and style of relationship to remain it does not. “So,” went my thoughts, “is Jesus laying a charge against the Ephesian pastor for allowing that type of love to diminish? Is that type of love something that is to remain in relationship with God?”
Neither of those interpretations seemed reasonable, and I found myself asking, “What word did John use for love?” He used agápē meaning affectionate regard, goodwill, benevolence. So feeding that meaning back into this passage we see the fault of the Ephesian church was in the manner of their acts of devotion. They did well, but their motives had become sterile and dry. Their lifestyle was no longer derived from a heart that yearned to honor God or benefit mankind in the name of Jesus. They knew what they should do and were doing it, but only just that. They had stopped paying attention to their motives. Motives need cultivated. That ardor, that passion they had left off.
So what about me?
A few hours after I had learned these conclusions I drove to the eye clinic at the Augusta State Medical Prison as I do several times each week. I parked and cleared the standard security protocols. Usually while walking to the clinic I begin to mingle with many inmates milling around awaiting their exams, but this time it was rather empty. Along the left side of the hall the usually full holding cells did not even have their lights on. “Hmmmm….” went my thoughts, “have clinics been canceled today? Are a bunch of the doctors just not coming? … Or … are they all at the back gate awaiting getting in?”
I opened the door to the clinic and after dropping my 12 oz. Coke Zero in the big industrial refrigerator went to my exam rooms. The bins that hold all the charts were empty. One of my techs was leaning back in a chair in the hall. Obviously, the clinic was getting off to a slow start. Business wasn’t going as usual. It turned out that the inmates were there, but they were at the back gate each being meticulously searched for contraband. Well, it is good, safe even, for contraband to be identified, but that seriously delays a clinic, and my brain simply does not smile at delay.
After the 3 or 4 patients who were there were seen I began to wonder if I should leave. Clinics that stutter-start are unpleasant. The clinic manager and I talked. I was not the only one with these worries. Apparently the administration and some other docs had been having discussions about contractual hours and other things. My brain told me that I am contracted to see a set of patients not a set of hours. On and on my brain spun me not feeling comfortable leaving, but wanting too. Eventually in onesies and twosies the inmates began to sprinkle in to be seen. This was both a bit of a relief and an inconvenience, but as one of my former techs would always say, “it is what it is.”
I settled in seeing the patients and in the midst of the seeing of the patients Revelation 2:4 came to mind. I find that I have several mental tiers in seeing patients. The first tier is purely medical. I talk to the patient, learn their symptoms, examine their eyes and apply clinical expertise to address the medical needs. The second tier grows out of personality and a sense of how God wants us to respond to others. It is a layer of empathy. As I saw the inmates that day I was functioning in these two layers, but when this lesson came to mind it was evident that I was missing a third layer of caring for the inmates, that of benevolence. See my approach to the inmates was medically sound and had an appearance of interest. That was not sufficient. The layer of specifically caring for them as an act of devotion to God who made them and loves them was not in play. It probably was not entirely off, but was very dim. My focus was one of consternation at the way the clinic was going and how it was dragging out. I was thinking of how it could have gone and how other docs might do thus and so all the while seeing patients and providing for them and on the outside doing the best I could to be godly in an approach to them.
It was as though God said, “Here is the point of that verse you’ve been struggling with. You are demonstrating what it means to live on the outside as if you love and honor me, but chafe on the inside at the way things are going. Have you not expressed your sense that I am in control and am managing the things around you? This is one of those things. To care for others, for the least of these, to have a charitable regard for these inmates is not in play right now, is it?” What do you say to that? A little Biblical reminding via the Holy Spirit, a good example for Sunday school, and an opportunity to act out what I was supposed to teach. Well, I am not quite sure how the next steps unfolded, but I think in some manner I began to engage the patients with a different mindset. I don’t have any additional things to report other than that. We successfully finished the clinic albeit long after we usually do. I drove away from the parking lot a bit worn out for it had been a long day. I think I had learned, though. I think I had applied a bit of the scripture to that moment.
Remember and Repent
5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Revelation 2:5–ESV)
Jesus told the Ephesian pastor that he needed to consider the old days, the way of benevolence and charity. Those original motivations were gone. Even while they were on point with their doctrine and godliness the wellspring of these had disappeared. The outside had some goodness to it, but the inside had lost it. Jesus intimated that that loss was huge. It was a great height from which they had fallen.
Jesus went on to tell them that they need to repair this breach. They were not teetering on the edge, but had gone over it. The first step in repair was repentance. The second step was acting. Doing without a Godly impetus is but a coating of glaze.
Coupled to this admonition was a threat. The church from which they were to shine their light would be removed. God’s light shines through his people, and if his people are not godly he will not continue his ministry through them.
It is not hopeless
6 Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. (Revelation 2:6–ESV)
When Jesus sternly admonishes his children he does not do so with an aim to make us fall. He demands many things as is his prerogative, but these are always tuned for our good. Jesus closes out his instruction to this pastor by telling him of the roots of godliness which remain. While much of the tree may have rotted the roots have not died out.
I do not wish to delve into the Christian heresy whose followers were called the Nicolatians. That heresy was not the scope of the words to Ephesus. Jesus was not trying to cheer or praise them for this facet of who they were as a church. I think he mainly wanted to tell them that all hope was not lost. Yes, their current godliness was rather a skin on an unhealthy body, but it was not on a dead body. There remained praiseworthy things. They were to remember their first love not remember their current tiny corner of goodness. They were to keep this corner of goodness and repent of the much bigger departure. Then Jesus would leave their lamp to shine in the very dark place of Ephesus.
It’s obviously not all about our deeds
There is a such a human notion to place hope for eternity in our own perceptions of how we are living. So many use an argument that they are “not a bad person” to support some notion of being good enough for heaven. Contrast that conception with the way Jesus is talking to the church at Ephesus. In that church were being done many, many good things. They were working hard, they were wearing themselves out, and they were being forced to endure hardship. The body and the soul were tired with the doing of good things. They still were castigated for having left their first love. Their love for God and application of that love in the lives of men had dwindled. We must never try to bank our eternity on the weak grounds of our own good deeds.
The message is for all of us
7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’ (Revelation 2:7–ESV)
This passage is not just for the Ephesian church. It was for all of those 7 churches and for all of us who would come after reading the book of Revelation in its totality. As I explained above it is for me. I see how God intends me to live and redirects me in the middle of a needful place. I want to hear what the Spirit says to the churches. I want to take up John’s truth challenge. Jesus is not saying that it is a good thing to do if we want to. The words to the Ephesian pastor were real and stiff both in their expectations and consequences. The benefit of obedience is the blessing of eternal life which begins on this side of the grave and goes on and on through the shadow of our own death and into heaven where we will be given the right to eat from the tree of life. That is a mystery of its own, but one that gets learned by the life lived on this side of the grave.